Remembering Girmit – May 14 - this year, and every year on
By Guest Writer, Rajendra Prasad
On this Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day on 14 May, we salute the sacrifices and vision of our Girmitiya forebears. Their resolve ensured that the plan of British to keep Girmitiya children uneducated failed. Girmitiyas pooled in their own resources and built primary schools in the villages. They felt a strong conviction in their hearts that education of their children would liberate them from servitude and poverty. That is exactly what happened. Today, we are the beneficiaries of that vision.
|Guest Write of FIJI PUNDIT, Rajendra Prasad, former Town Clerk of Ba and author of Tears in Paradise. He hails fro the the banks of Ba River at Vaqia, Ba, Fiji|
Every year, the spectre of Girmit stalks us and again, around May 14 we will again appear before the tomb of Girmit with hearts laden with sorrow and gratitude for sacrifices of the pioneer generation. To many it is a distant memory, which is best left to dissipate and disappear in the mist of time. Ignorance is the fruit of their selfish choice but to people like me, Girmit cannot be erased from my conscious memory. It is the spring of my life where I return frequently to pay my debt of gratitude to the sacrifices that my grandparents made at the altar of Girmit. Their suffering and sorrows; grief and tears, nourished the lives of successive generations, leaving a debt of gratitude that cries for recognition and remembrance.
Our detachment from our Girmit history was another successful British plan. Successive generations were completely cut off, as if Girmit did not exist. The simple reason for this was that disclosure of British crimes against the Girmitiyas could have inspired them to seek redress. In addition to this, illiteracy was widespread until the emergence of the third generation by when the crimes of Girmit were submerged. History books written, largely by European writers, did not disclose the horrid crimes of Girmit to protect British interests. The descendants of the Girmitiyas were made to learn the history of other nations and cultures, including the British and indigenous Fijian history but not their own.
|Koronubu Indian School - schools like this spread throughout Fiji were built through sacrifices of Girmitiyas, who spoilt the British plan of keeping Indians uneducated, and slaves for life.|
In the British plan for Fiji, the descendants of the Girmitiyas were not to be educated to ensure that they remained a labouring class, working as cooks, gardeners and performing other menial tasks for their white masters. So provision of schools by the Government was scarce. This was one area where the British failed. The Girmitiyas did not wait for provision of schools by the Government. They pooled in their own resources and built primary schools in the villages. They felt a strong conviction in their hearts that education of their children would liberate them from servitude and poverty. It was a mammoth battle and the sweetest victory. If this vision of the Girmitiyas was not pursued with courage, wisdom and sacrifice, our community would have remained illiterate, unskilled and earning our livelihood as menial workers. For their sacrifices, the Girmitiyas placed upon us a debt of gratitude that must ring through generations. Education remains the most treasured weapon, bequeathed to us by the Girmitiyas, which will be the lamps to our feet in guiding us to our destinies.
|Our Girmitiya forebears had simple life, but had vision for their children|
The Girmitiyas endured their suffering and captured them in different ways. This bidesia, a deep lamentation, was composed in the sugarcane fields of Fiji by an unknown Girmitiya. It captures their helplessness, anguish, anxiety and pain.
Kali kothariya ma biteye nahin ratiyaan ho,
Kiske batayee ham peer re bidesia.
Din raat hamri beeti dukhwa mein umariya ho,
Sukha re naynwa ke neer re bidesia.
(In the dark rooms (of the coolie lines), the nights are difficult to endure. Who do we tell the depth of our pains? Day and night of our lives are consumed in suffering. Tears have dried from our eyes. [This song is normally sung in GITMIT DAY Commemoration in Auckland and elsewhere, where Indo-Fijian Diaspora has some pride and honour in their heritage and forebears, to mark this day]
When the cruel masters ignored their pleas and justice system failed them, they found relief and comfort, capturing their emotions in their own mysterious ways. In groups, they gathered, shared, consoled and wiped each other’s tears. Bidesia was a common song that Girmitiyas sang and shared. It was a folksong that captured the longing and lament of the heart of the victims and the singer, usually a woman, sang with tears streaming down.
|Hard work paid in the end with a distinct Indo-Fijian culture.|
When they were around, I did not, at that time, understand the depth of pain and sorrow that radiated from those innocent eyes, tormented minds and tortured bodies. I did not understand the bowed legs, caused by carrying heavy loads or those that walked with a limp. These were the emblems of Girmit that the Girmitiyas took to their graves. In the innocence of our bachpana (childhood) we teased, mocked or laughed at them and today, I want to hug and apologize to them for my failings. The very thought of it fills my eyes with tears. But where do I go? My heart pants with desire to mitigate my guilt. The least I can now do is to remember and pay my debt of gratitude to them on May 14 and seek forgiveness. We have built our lives on the foundations of their lives. I invite all Indo-Fijians to join me at this altar of gratitude.It will be partial redemption but satisfying.
*Rajendra Prasad is former Town Clerk of Ba and the author of Tears in Paradise – Suffering and Struggles of Indians in Fiji 1879-2004. His Fiji roots are at the banks of Ba river at Vaqia, Ba, Fiji. He is also a Founding tTustee of Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand]